I was really excited to visit the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. I had some familiarity with the museum because of virtually visiting the museum in Intro to Museum Studies last year. I was aware of the technology that allows visitors to hear a selection of instruments on display before attending the museum. However, physically attending the museum was a much different experience. Visitors are immediately greeted with an interactive wall-display comprised of videos of individuals around the world playing music. The center of the display showcases the words: “music is the language of the soul.” After a staff member distributed and explained the guidePort technology, all of us had the opportunity to view an introductory video. This video clearly explained the mission of the Musical Instrument Museum.
The video commented on the diversity of music. Music, the video stated, knows “neither gender nor creed.” Music, through an array of different instruments, has the ability to express ideas that can be understood by individuals all around the world. The video also explained that by studying music, one can also develop an understanding and appreciation of different cultures. I thought that the video did a very good job at explaining the need for a musical instrument museum. Going through the museum was not simply to learn about different instruments, but to develop a grasp of other individuals. By doing so, an individual who spoke any language would be able to connect with another culture.
The upper level of the museum was arranged geographically. The floor was separated into ten separate galleries: Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Europe, and the United States/Canada. Additionally, there were some special displays on the upper level. American manufacturers such as Steinway & Sons, C.F. Martin & Co., D’Addario & Co., and Fender had their own dedicated displays. In each gallery, a country would have its own designated section. Each section had at least one video display which was connected to the guidePort system. The viewer would be able to listen to several video-audio selections for each country. Additional signage and artifacts would discuss topics such as the construction of the instruments, what the instruments were used for, and other cultural information. I really liked that MIM included these video displays. Looking at the actual instruments and reading about their names, materials, and uses was interesting. But often times, I would be unsure about how the instrument would be played. Seeing native peoples interact with the instruments was invaluable; viewers were able to see the instruments in their natural environment.
Some countries had larger exhibit areas than others. For example, Turkey, the Congo, and China had extended exhibit spaces where larger cultural themes and multiple styles of music could be discussed. I’m interested in how exactly these larger exhibit displays are assigned. Were these countries allotted larger spaces due to the amount of instruments the museum had in their collections? Did these exhibits rotate? Or were these the only countries that would have a larger display? Having these larger displays was nice because it allowed the visitor a clearer picture of the musical and cultural reality. However, I would want these displays to rotate. By not rotating, the museum would almost be sending a message of favoritism. The point of the museum is for viewers to appreciate music and culture from around the world. This would only be accomplished if attention was given equally to all of the countries. Obviously, this would be constricted by the collections of the museum.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience at the MIM. I liked the inclusion of video and was surprised by how much cultural information was offered. I liked the diversity amongst the visitors at the museum; I remember hearing at least three different languages. Additionally, I was surprised by how many people were at the museum. The museum was pretty crowded for it being a Sunday right before closing. However, I see the appeal of the museum. Language is not a barrier in the museum; while the text on the display panels might be in English, anyone can understand the music. I also really enjoyed the other galleries that the museum had to offer. The Artist Gallery and the Experience Gallery were probably my favorites. The Artist Gallery was great because it highlighted artists from around the world. Usually, these galleries included clothing or props from past performances. The Experience Gallery was great because after seeing the different instruments around the world, I actually had the opportunity to play some of these. I additionally enjoyed that the Conservation Lab was on display. Visitors could see new additions to the collections and view the process that the conservators took to ensure the protection of objects.
The Musical Instrument Museum, while great, was overwhelming at times. The staff at the front desk actually suggested a few days to see the entire museum. The museum’s collections are expansive; most of these instruments were found in the United States/Canada gallery. After going through the Middle East and Africa galleries, there was a small alcove with seating to “take a break.” I wish that the museum had more of these seating areas where visitors could reflect on the information they saw before diving into the next gallery. After going through a few geographic galleries, I stopped reading every plaque and listening to every video because I simply did not have time and was just tired of reading. Since there was so much information, it was really up to the visitor to decide what they would spend their time on.
The conversation at Arizona State University following our visit to the MIM additionally brought up a point that I had not considered during the actual visit. The mission of the MIM is to unite individuals around the world through music. However, the MIM did not have a world music section. By sorting the instruments by country, the MIM, in a way, actually does the opposite of their mission statement. Sorting the instruments in the way that they did reinforces geographic boundaries. The MIM could have chosen to sort the instruments by type or material, which might have reinforced their mission more effectively.
Entrance to the museum.
Portion of larger Turkey exhibit.
Playing in the Experience Gallery.
Example of section within Geographic Galleries.
Within the Artist Gallery.
Conservation Lab view.